If we examine the past year’s events in Iraq as one important dimension of the United States’ post-9/11 strategy in the Middle East, it seems clear that, on balance, Israel has benefited. But this might not continue for long to be the case.
True, the US occupation of Iraq did not bring about the much ballyhooed positive domino effect of peace and democratization in the region. Yet on balance, and to date, America’s actions in the region over the past two and a half years have been good for Israel. They have eliminated any vestige of a coordinated Arab military threat ("eastern front") against Israel, begun to roll back the weapons of mass destruction threat (Libya, hopefully Iran, Pakistan’s proliferation mania), and provided Israel with a powerful ally in its struggle against the Islamic radical movements that target it.
After 9/11 Israel joined the "good guys", while Yasser Arafat maneuvered himself into the ranks of the "evil ones", along with Saddam Hussein. Even the uglier aspects of the American war on terror-regrettable civilian casualties and damage in Iraq, the daunting specter of the Guantanamo detention facility, and the recent revelations regarding American and British torture of prisoners-reflect favorably on Israel, by demonstrating to its critics in the West that its treatment of Palestinians in wartime, however problematic, is probably more humane than the "dirty war" norms of what other civilized countries end up doing as they fight back against terrorism.
At the grand strategic level, the American offensives in Afghanistan and Iraq and against al Qaeda are predicated on a notion that is very welcome in Israel: that the real Middle East dynamic around which US policy should be organized is not the Israel-Arab or Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but rather the need to counter Islamic terror, WMD, and radical rogue states, all of which directly threaten American security.
Those who now argue that "Iraq = Palestine", that in both countries Arab freedom fighters are struggling against imperialists and colonialists, hold that, in effect, there are no Middle East solutions-no peace, no democracy and human rights, no prosperity, no stability-without a Palestinian solution. That is what moderate Arab countries like Egypt and Jordan told the Bush administration before the invasion of Iraq.
In is now clear that US President Bush barely paid lip service to this notion. He adopted the roadmap prior to the war to help out British Prime Minister Tony Blair politically, and made a mild effort to "launch" it shortly after the occupation of Iraq was completed. But the administration’s heart was never really in this enterprise. It assessed, with some degree of accuracy, that the moderate Arab states with their concern over Palestine were nothing but "paper tigers" in the Iraqi context. What became important for Washington was installing a stable and friendly regime in Baghdad and, as a consequence, winning the November 2004 election.
In this regard, the noble goal of democratization in the Middle East has emerged during the past year as nothing but old-fashioned regime change. Ask Yasser Arafat, whose removal Washington and Jerusalem adamantly demand because he condones terrorism, even though he was elected more democratically than any other Middle East leader. Further, Bush signaled Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon just under a year ago that American electoral and Iraqi concerns require that there be no messy Israeli-Palestinian peace process at all. Bush went out on a limb to embrace Sharon’s problematic disengagement plan only on condition that it not take place in 2004 and that the preparations provide Washington with "peace" dividends in return for minimal investment; now even that deal has been jeopardized by the negative Likud referendum vote.
Despite Israel’s improved strategic status, not all of the post-9/11 related developments are good for its long term interests. A vigorous US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace process would certainly be better than the administration’s indifference. Meanwhile, even though Iraq really is not Palestine, the veneer is wearing thin on the American grand strategy in the region, and that is definitely bad for Israel. Indeed, the more the American armed forces sink into a violent morass in Iraq and possibly in Afghanistan, lose their deterrent effect and fail to stabilize a single Arab country into which Washington has invested nearly 150,000 troops and hundreds of billions of dollars, the worse it is not only for the United States, but for its ally, Israel, as well.
If the US now opts to extricate itself from Iraq by adopting more traditional Middle East expedients-Israel may pay a price. In retrospect, the red line may have been crossed with the enthusiastic introduction and endorsement by Washington of a UN special envoy for Iraq, Algeria’s Lakhdar Brahimi, for whom Israel is "the big poison" in the Middle East (talk about linkage!), followed by a plan to promote a compromise caretaker commander for Fallujah drawn from the ranks of Saddam’s most trusted generals.